Students Probe Peculiar Ice Worms in Alaska's Glaciers

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
January 28, 2002

Millions of students around the world are getting ready to take a virtual expedition to the glaciers of Alaska in the hope of unraveling the mysteries surrounding one of Earth's most peculiar creatures, the ice worm.

"Worms occupy the most diverse niches on the planet," said Daniel Shain, an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University. "They live near hydrothermal vents in the ocean at temperatures that can exceed 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), and they're living in ice on Alaskan glaciers at zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). That's about as extreme as you can get."

Shain, one of the few scientists in the world studying ice worms, is participating in Frozen World, the 13th expedition of the Jason Project. The expeditions take students on the "ultimate field trip," allowing them to conduct field work, participate in experiments, and communicate with scientists in real time using satellites and Internet technology.

"Our mission is to spark a lifelong passion for science and technology in students," said Tim Armour, executive director of the Jason Foundation of Education. "The focus of this year's expedition is really the polar regions. We came to Alaska because many of the leading indicators of climate change can be seen in both the Arctic and Antarctic."

Students and scientists will be working on glacier ice core studies—"aging the glaciers, studying their advance and retreat, mostly retreat right now, and the science of why and how ice core sampling is done," said Armour.

Other research being conducted during the two-week expedition, which runs from January 28 to February 8, includes studies involving plant and animal life, ocean circulation, and atmospheric measurements. Laced throughout the program is the human cultural aspect—exploring how people have adapted to the environment.

"And then there's ice worms, which could turn out to be hugely important," said Armour.

Learning how ice worms evolved, and what adaptations they made to survive in such extreme conditions, could lead to breakthroughs in space travel, advances in tissue preservation for organ transplants, and insight into the possibility of life on other planets.

New Look at Ice Worm

George Frederick Wright, a glacial geologist and theologian, reported finding ice worms on Muir Glacier in southeast Alaska in 1887. But the intriguing creatures basically disappeared from the scientific radar screen for more than 100 years. There have been a few scattered scientific reports over the years, but no one has studied them in-depth.

Shain first learned about the existence of ice worms from a placemat in a restaurant in Alaska. "I was in Alaska on a trip with my Dad, and we went out to eat," he recalled. "They had a little blurb on ice worms, and like most people, I thought it was a big joke."

A couple of days later, Shain went to the Portage glacier visitor's center, which had some actual ice worms. "One of the women working there was extremely enthusiastic about them and sent me about 50, and it all started from there," he said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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